Monday, July 2, 2012

The Lost Union Home and School -- 57th Street off 8th Avenue

In 1864 Valentine's Manual noted that the Union Home was "The Last of the Havemeyer Estate."  The lithograph gave a rear view of the mansion that cut into the hillside.
Like other prestigious New York families in the 18th century, the Havemeyers owned an impressive summer estate north of the city.  Having amassed a fortune in the sugar refining industry, they ranked among the city's wealthiest.

The mansion sat on a low rise and was meant to impress.   Seen from the front, the masonry home rose three floors over a fieldstone basement.  High wooden verandas caught the summer breezes and tall windows that touched the floors provided optimum ventilation.

An elegant balustrade finished the hipped roof.  The house nestled up against a knoll, so that what was the first floor to the front was below ground level to the rear in the service area.  It would have provided easy access for kitchen staff to root cellars and other cool, subterranean rooms.

The elegant era of country seats in New York City was not to last forever and by the middle of the 19th century the streets and avenues of what would become Midtown were already in place.  The grand mansions where the city’s elite entertained in high style were gradually transformed into roadside inns, hotels or simply razed for development.

The fate of what was now referred to as “the old Havemeyer House” took a turn on April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter.  The North and the South were now at war.

Within a month the wife of Major Robert Anderson, who was in command of the Charleston garrison, arrived in New York.  Mrs. Anderson already foresaw the carnage of battle to come and the resulting fatherless children.  She proposed the formation of an organization to care for and support the children of volunteer soldiers who would die in battle.

On May 22, 1861 the “Union Home and School, for the Education and Maintenance of the Children of Our Volunteers, Who May be left Unprovided For,” was officially formed, with Mrs. Anderson president.  The constitution laid the objective of the home as “to furnish board and tuition for all motherless children of the officers and soldiers who have volunteered in the service of our country, in defence [sic] of the Union and our flag.”

Slightly north of the Havemeyer mansion was the former country estate of Peletiah Perit, Esquire at the corner of 75th Street and 11th Avenue on the banks of the Hudson River.  The group leased the house and grounds on August 1 and opened the school.  Before long there were 80 children attending classes.

The ladies proudly noted that when the school opened two boys, ten and eleven years old, who did not know the alphabet were admitted.  Within six months they wrote a letter to their father, a private in the 36th Regiment who answered saying “its receipt was the happiest day of his life.”

Donations to support the school came not only from private citizens, but from the military.  A letter to the editor of The New York Times dated December 14, 1861 noted “I have seen a private soldier who gets but $13 per month, contribute some a dollar, some fifty cents, some twenty-five cents, for the support of the ‘Union Home and School,’ which proposes to elevate the destitute children of the army, and save them from the almshouse and the country from disgrace, while their fathers have laid down their lives, or perchance are still periling them.”

Some regiments pooled resources for the support of the family of a fallen member.  When  a soldier under the command of Colonel D’Utassy was killed, his two children were left in the care of the Home.  When word of this came to the colonel he started a fund among the other officers, providing a subscription of $10 a month himself.  The total amounted to $816 per year for the support of the orphans.

The Union Home and School reached out to grocers and retailers for support.  The women managers, in a report to the State Legislature, said “To the many gentlemen in Washington, Fulton, and other markets, who, by their liberal contributions of meat, poultry, vegetables &c, have shown their friendship for the children under our charge, and an appreciation of our efforts in their behalf, the managers feel truly grateful.”

Tragedy soon struck however.  A child was admitted to the home who carried “that terrible scourge, scarlet fever,” as it was described by the managers.  Quickly, 30 children contracted the disease and the panicked women sought help from Dr. Walter Kidder to stem the progression. 

By January 1862, Secretary Olive M. Devoe wrote “We regret to say death has been among us, three children having left us, as we trust, for a better ‘Home’ above.”  Among the four children who succumbed, in addition to little Allicia Brooks, James Lawton, and Rachael Mclean, was Mrs. Devoe’s only son, Frank Robinson Devoe, just five and a half years old.

The Union Home experienced a shock and near set-back when the Advisory Committee disbanded itself and ordered the organization discontinued.    The men wrote that “having ascertained that the said officers and managers have no legal existence as an incorporated society or association, yet approving of the object contemplated by  them, do hereby advise that the said officers and managers suspend of discontinue their operations under their present organization.”  The committee advised that the Union Home seek incorporation as quickly as possible.

The ladies of the Home did just that.  And on April 22, 1862 an act was passed incorporating the group with the still-ungainly name “The Union Home and School, for the Education and Maintenance of our Volunteer’s Children, Who May be left Unprovided For.”  With the new incorporation, they took a three-year least on the Havemeyer estate to the south at 58th Street, just west of 8th Avenue.

The converted mansion is seen here from the front.
The mansion was outfitted to house and school scores of young children and the side wall was converted to a sort of billboard, advertising the Home.  But despite its spaciousness, the home would be sorely taxed by the number of orphans pouring in.  On January 1, 1863 the home had received 122 children between 18 months and 13 years during its three year existence.  By June there would be 175 children living in the house with applications pending for 100 more.  The Union House needed more money.

Mrs. Olive M. Devoe, now directress of the Home, said that accepting the new applicants was “impossible, as the Society cannot extend their sphere of usefulness without greater help from the community, which considering the cause, there is no doubt will be speedily forth-coming.”

Five of the children were accepted that month, despite the financial problems.  S. M. Ostrander explained that “the father of these children was killed at the battle of Antietam; their mother died last Sunday, and left the little ones totally unprovided for.  Shall they be sent to the Almshouse?  No!  Let us rather treat them as the Spartans would have treated them of old—clothe them, feed them, educate them in a manner worth the State in the defense of which their father so nobly died.”

The children lucky enough to be admitted were educated in every functional aspect of making one’s way through life.  In 1864 J. Henry Hayward described the Home’s environment.

The children, he said, had “every advantage of regular tuition, by competent teachers, in the various branches of a thorough English education, as well as music, needle-work, fancy-work, etc.  The boys and girls are taught the first principles of industry, by doing the most of the work about the house, assisted by two women—one in the laundry, and the other in the cooking department.”

The older children took care of the younger ones, and the girls mended the clothing.  In true Victorian style, the managers noted that “all are regularly taught the principles of virtue, truth and honesty” and ministers of “all persuasions” were invited to visit to “instill into the minds of the children the love of God and righteousness.”

The children were sometimes found abandoned on the street.  A report to the State Senate noted “Two were found by one of the managers in East Twelfth street, in such a filthy condition their clothes were burned, and others provided, before they could be removed to the Home.  Their father was in the army of the Potomac—their mother in the Tombs awaiting her trial for stabbing a man while under the influence of liquor, and both of these truly orphans were under the age of four years.”

Another boy, nine years old, had been taken by his father to serve with him in General Sickles’ brigade for over a year.  The boy survived the battles of Williamsburgh, Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill and one of the General’s aides wrote “was always in the thickest of the fight, carrying water and refreshments to the worn and weary soldiers of his own free will.”

When the soldier was wounded, the boy was returned to New York with him and he was placed in the Home.  The women praised him for being “a good boy, who was never known to utter a profane or vulgar expression during his term in the school.  It is his delight to take command and drill his companions in the art of war, and military tactics generally.”

In 1864 the Home petitioned the State Legislation for financial aid.  In its application—which was both businesslike and emotionally moving—the management pleaded its case on economic, humanitarian and patriotic grounds:

“We believe we are engaged in a good work of charity, and are actually making a saving for the State, besides keeping from the poor house the children of our glorious defenders, educating, and, in its literal sense, furnishing them a Home.  It surely must be a source of gratification to the poor soldier, when on the battle-field, to know, if he falls in the defense of his country and flag, his orphan children will be kindly cared for by a grateful people.  Will it not nerve and incite him to nobler deeds?”

The need for additional funds was understandable.  In October of that year the Union Home was now providing for 500 children.  A fair was held that month at Irving Hall to raise funds.  The Times opined that “It would be a reproach to the patriotism and benevolence of New-York if this truly worthy enterprise should fail for want of the cooperation of her liberal citizens.”   The fair was visited by high level military personnel, such as Major-General Banks and Brigadier General Cochrane, who made speeches in support.  The newspaper did its best to promote the event.

“To those who desire to pass a pleasant evening in delightful company, to enjoy excellent music and to invest their spare cash in useful articles, at reasonable prices, the fair for the soldiers’ children is cordially recommended.  The decorations of the hall are elegant, and the stalls well supplied with merchandise.  The refreshment saloon is unusually well provided and attended.”

The article added that “The Floral Temple, presided over by Mrs. Devoe, is one of the chief features of the room.”

It was a personal visit from General Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, however, that did the most to boast the prestige of the institution.  Following the tour of the school and home, the Union Home and School incorporated the general’s likeness into its letterhead in hopes of inducing donations from wealthy contributors.

The young boys put on a military display for the general who praised the order and precision of their exercises and made special note of their 16-year old captain, Thomas Davis.

The following year the women managers wrote to Grant on behalf of the boy, now 17, requesting the general’s help in getting him accepted as a cadet at West Point.  Calling him “the best scholar” in the Home, they said “He is very gentlemanly, and of unexceptionable character and whilst pursuing for the last two years higher studies than any of his companions to fit himself for West Point he has acted as drill master for the Institution.”

The ladies were not above appealing to Grant’s sense of guilt.  “He is a young fellow very great promise and it is time that he should fit himself for some profession or trade, otherwise, instead of benefiting we should fear to do him an injustice and waste his time and energies in keeping him longer under our care.”

By now the war had been over for five years.  One by one the children became “of age” and left until the purpose of the Union Home and School for Soldiers’ Children was no more.  Eventually the home was closed and the Havemeyer mansion, its lawns and gardens now cramped with rows of buildings, was razed.

Today West 57th Street is a congested six-lane crosstown thoroughfare lined with soaring glass and steel skyscrapers.  And the elegant 18th century home, once the refuge of hundreds of children otherwise lost to America’s darkest hour, is wholly forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. I am trying to find out if there are any files that exist on anyone that was in this Union Home and School for soldier Childrens. I am trying to find out what happened to my Grandfathers sister
    Ruth Covert Kendrick